After reshaping the conference, what's next for Brett Yormark and Big 12? 'You could say we are still open for business'

LAS VEGAS — In the middle of Big 12 football media day, within the air conditioned confines of Allegiant Stadium, during a steamy day in the desert, a costumed mascot — the furry, gray BYU cougar — playfully toys around with the Cincinnati bearcat while the Utah athletic director watches from afar.

Mark Harlan, the longtime Utes administrator, gestures to this unusual and, perhaps, unthinkable scene that spells out a new reality: BYU and Cincinnati are in the same conference as Utah. And Colorado and Arizona State. And Kansas. And Iowa State. And Central Florida.

Yes, Harlan says, this is weird. It is a bit surreal, almost unbelievable that one year ago Harlan was strolling through Pac-12 media day just a few blocks from here and that only 18 months ago, his team won the Pac-12 championship in this very venue.

“Now,” he says, “here we are playing for the Big 12.”

It is all very weird. But exciting, too, Harlan says. New teams. New places. And a new, brash commissioner who confidently kicked off the two-day event here with a fiery, hour-long presentation in which he boastfully described his league as one of the three best in the country.

Dressed in a gray tailored suit and crisp red tie, Brett Yormark paced the elevated stage before more than 500 media members not unlike a WWE wrestler stalking the ring, ripping and roaring, juking and jiving and not-so-subtly digging at his rivals, most notably the ACC.

“We’ve solidified ourselves as one of the top three conferences in America,” he said.

He described the Big 12 as the “deepest” football league in the country and said the conference is “more relevant now than ever before.”

“I will not stop until we are the No. 1 conference in America,” he added later.

His words were strikingly similar to those delivered a year ago at Big 12 media day, when he began to publicly court four Pac-12 schools by telling the world that his league was “open for business,” a line that he’s repeated ever since. He eventually landed those schools — Arizona, ASU, Utah and Colorado — in one of two blows that sank a 108-year-old conference (the other from the Big Ten swiping Washington and Oregon).

A year later, here at the site of the final Pac-12 football title game, the Big 12 continues to explore expansion, he says. This would not be such a big deal except for this fact: Two members of the ACC are actively attempting to exit.

“I guess you could say we are still open for business,” he said with a smile. “This is not time to press pause.”

In an ever-changing industry, Yormark is always on play, not pause. An outside-the-box thinker, he has introduced to his membership several concepts in an effort to generate more value and revenue to contend with the big dogs (Big Ten and SEC) and keep pace, or keep ahead of, as Yormark tells it, with the ACC.

The Big 12 is exploring a naming rights deal (with Allstate) and is examining capital investments through private-equity firms. Yormark is pushing the NCAA to permit his conference to add corporate patches to the uniform of officials that could generate millions in sponsorship deals. He has plans to take women's soccer and baseball teams to Mexico for international competition.

He describes himself as a “disruptor,” someone who “stirs the pot.”

“College football needs that,” he quips.

But not all of these proposals will come or have come to fruition. From within his own league, there is often pushback to ideas that some describe as innovative and others call extreme. For instance, a plan to add Gonzaga was left on the cutting room floor. And while there is a renewed interest from Yormark in adding UConn, their candidacy remains uncertain. The Big 12’s foray into Mexico, now soccer and baseball, was expected to originally feature basketball and football games (those appear to have been scrapped).

Support for a league-wide private-equity deal that doles out $50 million in additional revenue to each school may require an extension of the grant of rights — a hurdle some won’t cross. As for naming rights, there is wide membership support to change the Big 12 name to the “Allstate 12” in a revolutionary agreement that could distribute millions more to schools. But there are plenty of complications that may blow up the deal entirely.

And what of the ACC? The league’s situation is perilous enough that buzz from some here in Las Vegas centered on the conference’s future as Florida State and Clemson work to free themselves.

“What’s going on with FSU?” one Big 12 head coach asked.

“Do you know what’s happening in the ACC?” an administrator inquired.

“Jim Phillips really has a bad situation on his hands!” another added.

Ironically enough, similar buzz transpired a year ago at Big 12 media day … about the Pac-12.

Will or can Yormark find enough financial resources to land a Clemson or FSU or both? Will he fire another torpedo that destroys another conference?

We may be a long way from any ACC resolution. But around the corner is a month of unusual football media day events like the one here in Las Vegas. Next up is the bright lights of SEC media days originating from, of all places, Dallas, where the Big 12, as it turns out, usually holds its event. Texas and Oklahoma will make their first appearance at the event.

The ACC and Big Ten hold their media days the following week, July 22-25, with a combined six new West Coast teams. That Friday, July 26, is traditionally reserved for the Pac-12 media day.

Instead, the league’s two remaining schools, Washington State and Oregon State, will hold a scaled-down version of a media event on Wednesday night here in Vegas. Meanwhile, their 10 former league partners are spread across the country: two in the ACC, four in the Big Ten and another four here in the Big 12.

Yogi Roth was here too on Tuesday for the Big 12’s opening day. He’s spent the last two decades affiliated in some way with the Pac-12, first as an assistant at USC and then as a Pac-12 Network analyst and studio host. In fact, Roth hosted last year’s Pac-12 media day, the final version of it — or perhaps not. He holds the belief that a version of the Pac-12 will reform one day.

This is just a “unique window” of conference realignment, he said. At some point, he asks, won’t schools return to their geographic and cultural footprints?

“The thing that hurts the most is that the Pac-12 was at its best. That’s the thing,” he said, glancing at the 16 helmets on display at midfield of Allegiant Stadium.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if Utah or Arizona won this league,” said Roth, who’s started a West Coast-geared podcast and has shifted to calling Big Ten games this year. “I wouldn’t be shocked if Oregon wins the Big Ten. You start thinking about it. There’s a lot of really talented West Coast teams that really began peaking when NIL and the transfer portal started.

“Now you think … Utah is playing Central Florida on Friday night at the end of the season? How does that make any sense? That part is like, what are we doing in college athletics?”

Across the field, Harlan trots toward lunch within the bowels of Allegiant Stadium while sharing a story. On the plane ride to Las Vegas on Monday, Utah players asked their athletic director a question: While at Big 12 media day, can we talk positively about the Pac-12?

Harlan said it led to a thoughtful conversation during the plane ride. Of course, he told them, you can talk positively about the Pac-12. Speak your feelings. Say what you feel.

“There’s a narrative about the Pac-12 and if you weren’t in it, it’s easy to poke fun at it, but if you were in it and you fought for it, you have great respect for the time there and the people there,” Harlan said. “Our players loved competing in the Pac-12 and it did great things for the university and great things for them too. You’re talking about guys with two championships in that league and in this stadium.

“It’s just crazy.”

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